What is joy and how to embrace it?

June 23rd, 2021

Last month, Dinner Confidential explored the topic of JOY in 6 dinners around the world. From Nairobi to Buenos Aires, women gathered to share and listen to each other’s stories.

Upon initial reflection, we thought we knew all about joy: a relatively simple emotion, if not always easy to achieve. We also assumed that there is a largely accepted version of joy that most people can relate to. Instead we learned that joy is understood and experienced in many different ways and when we really reflected on it, it wasn’t so obvious to grasp this much coveted emotion in a universal way.

Here are our key takeaways…

The multi-faceted nature of joy

Across our dinners, we each experience and relate to joy in different ways. We spoke about celebratory traditions, nostalgic memories of euphoric parties with others, and the simple appreciation of a quiet solitary moment in nature. Yet despite discussing these warming feelings of excitement, enjoyment, and contentment — many of us said we often felt pressure or resistance towards joy. We also shared that we gave ourselves a hard time for not feeling joy or celebrating it in ways that others did. As we spoke across cities, we realised that many of us were confusing the “chase” of joy with more extrinsic motivations and expressions of happiness and pleasure. And by doing so, we were letting our expectations, worries, and comparisons get in the way of us experiencing joy more freely.

We ended up being surprised by the deeper and interconnected layers of joy in our lives, and loved how paying attention to it helped us access more of it, in our own unique ways.

Is joy a light inside or outside of us?

When referring to joy, there are so many expressions that suggest how we access and experience this emotion; people tell us we have “lost” our spark, that we need to “embrace” joy, or they ask what “brings” you joy? And, when we have joy it is something that we apparently should “spread”. But is this elusive state something that we “find” or something we “grow”? Maybe it’s both?

Many of us talked about how joy coexists with other emotions, for example “crying with joy” or being “overcome” with joy, feeling grief and joy at the same time, or the freedom of joy. For some it felt like a core underlying state from which all our other options exist — similar to love or peace, a light that one can continually come back to, even if our circumstances means it’s sometimes bright and sometimes dim. We talked a lot about unexpected joy and wondered if we had to be in a certain state to receive it.

Some of us spoke of “jumping for joy” one minute to feeling enveloped in fear the next, preventing ourselves from fully immersing in the joy because of worry or limiting beliefs.

“Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience. Because if we cannot tolerate joy, we start to rehearse tragedy.” — Brené Brown

Joy is connected to our sense of aliveness

Joy is a visceral experience. When it’s present, our bodies feel open, vibrant, and very much alive.

Many of us feel this sense of aliveness when we fully embrace the present moment. We noted that perhaps we associate joy with happiness because it’s easy to be present when what is happening is fun and pleasurable (like a good party with friends), or when it’s overwhelmingly beautiful (like being in nature or seeing a great piece of art). Being present when things are hard is a whole other challenge, we fight or avoid what brings us pain to protect ourselves- and that battle can be exhausting! But when we embrace reality, we can allow for love and grief to meet; and in that openness, our sense of vibrancy and aliveness can come through.

In the true act of surrendering, we can feel joy even in the midst of pain.

Another powerful kind of joy we talked about was the one that arises when we connect unashamedly with our real sense of self, humour, curiosity, and playfulness. We feel this when connecting with children and their wild imagination or big laughs; and when connecting with our own inner child, when not worrying about the past or the future- just the joy of “now”.

So what is joy to us?

Because joy can be interpreted in many ways or often misinterpreted, we came up with a definition that would hopefully capture the broader scope of this emotion: “Joy is our sense of aliveness, vibrancy, connection and presence. It lives inside all of us, like a flame. Sometimes it’s awakened by a song or a spontaneous moment with friends, and sometimes is nurtured by doing the thing we love and value most”. What is joy to you?

How do we relate to joy — cultivating or resisting?

Joy can be such a potent emotion that it can feel intimidating. To feel joyful is to feel free in the truest sense of the world. So some of us push away our joy, simply because it’s too powerful. Some of us even feel guilt at being joyful when there is so much injustice in the world; thinking if we allow ourselves to feel joy, and reduce the pain we feel over other things, we are rendering them unimportant.

What change could we create — individually and as a society — if we focused on cultivating our sense of joy? If joy mattered as much as productivity and hard work?

What if instead of thinking that joy is an emotion we should chase or that can be triggered only by external circumstances, it’s a light that resides inside of us? Imagine for a moment if all of us were born with a “joy light”- a spark of vibrancy that every human gets when they enter this earth. If we all believe this to be true, can we explore how we relate to this light? Are we nourishing it or are we resisting it?

How would we experience pain and injustices if we also felt the light inside? What do we risk by allowing joy (or not!)?

There is no right or wrong way to experience joy

We mentioned feeling subjected to a certain (Westernised?) type of joy through social media: a woman laughing while drinking her homemade green smoothie and feeling #grateful for life, or a family (often white) with big smiles and a big dog frolicking on beautiful beaches. This commercialised version of joy sold through the booming wellness industry is often accompanied by “don’t worry be happy” slogans and the toxic positivity that shows up at work or school. As a result, it can make us feel at fault when we are not “happy” and “positive” all the time, and confused when our societies actually value our productivity more than our joy.

We realised that “chasing” joy, trying to emulate our “joyful” friends who are the light of the party, or trying to access this emotion through holidays, adventures and hedonism, didn’t always work. So many of us strive to feel and embody these “explosive” and escapist aspects of joy and even feel a bit empty or lacking when we don’t have these experiences. Didn’t someone say once that comparison is the thief of joy? We think they had a point…

Connecting to our internal unique sense of joy

We came to realise that joy is more of an ongoing inner state than a fleeting moment. This is reassuring and exciting. Yet as we’ve mentioned, it doesn’t always make it any easier to choose to connect to and cultivate. Especially with everything going on in the world right now, and when we have been conditioned for so long to choose quick and easy fixes such as other people’s ways of experiencing joy or social media — which both increase the detachment from what is authentically our own.

We have to explore what joy means to us. We can practice relating to it and feeling it in our bodies. We can try to remember that our sense of joy and aliveness is always present, and that the more we understand what fuels it, the more vibrant we can feel.

Postscript: Cultural Nuances

Through our dinners with folks across Europe, Latin America, the US and Africa; and as we looked at our multicultural marriages, relationships and workplaces, we discovered that culture plays an important role in how joy is shaped, expressed, and celebrated in our lives. Some of us may find that joy is easy to access. But for others, it totally depends on a state of mind, current life situation, or background influences.

We spoke of Caribbean cultures or the pura vida mindset of Costa Rica, that are more traditionally joyful, celebrating joy through music and togetherness. Other cultures we discussed are more reserved or individualistic, which can be perceived as not welcoming or even “negative”. It became clearer that while joy isn’t achieved from an external thing, our environment can deeply affect our feelings of joy.

Think of the wider culture in your country and also the culture of your work/communities. How do these affect how you relate to joy? How does it affect how you relate to joy with others? Or to certain ideals of joy?


  • Pay attention to the unique ways you experience joy on a day to day basis and keep note of that — what you notice, and pay attention to grows (h/t adrienne maree brown)

  • Pause, look within, and feel the “joy light” inside of you — what do you discover? What’s its size? Color? Power? Ask what it needs from you right now.

  • Notice the times when you resist feeling joy — are there any moments when you suppress that feeling of aliveness and vibrancy? What’s preventing you from embracing joy?

Written by Alana in Lisbon, Veronica in Miami, Julie in Rome and Roxanne in Edinburgh with contributions from Dinner Confidential hosts, Uditi in Stockholm, Caroline in Nairobi, and Mariascu and Vanina in Buenos Aires.

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